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License To Steal

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People are finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions.  Voters have seen so many politicians breach their campaign promises while providing new meaning to the expression “follow the money”, that there now seems to be a resigned acceptance that political payoffs are an uncomfortable fact of life.  Worse yet, most people aren’t aware of another loophole in the law allowing Congress-cretins to make real money.

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

Here is a summary of the most important provisions of the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act”:

Amends the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Commodities Exchange Act to direct both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to prohibit purchase or sale of either securities or commodities for future delivery by a person in possession of material nonpublic information regarding pending or prospective legislative action if the information was obtained:  (1) knowingly from a Member or employee of Congress; (2) by reason of being a Member or employee of Congress; and (3) other federal employees.

Amends the Code of Official Conduct of the Rules of the House of Representatives to prohibit designated House personnel from disclosing material nonpublic information relating to any pending or prospective legislative action relating to either securities of a publicly-traded company or a commodity if such personnel has reason to believe that the information will be used to buy or sell the securities or commodity based on such information.

Back in September of 2009, a report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn discussed the investment transactions made by some Senators in September of 2008, after having been informed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that our financial system was on the verge of a meltdown.  After quoting then GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public acknowledgement that:

We clearly have an unprecedented crisis in our financial system.    .   .   .

On behalf of the American people our job is to put our partisan differences aside and to work together to help solve this crisis.

Mr. Henn proceeded to explain how swift Senatorial action resulted in a bipartisan exercise of greed:

The next day, according to personal financial disclosures, Boehner cashed out of a fund designed to profit from inflation.  Since he sold, it’s lost more than half its value.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was also at that meeting sold more than $40,000 in mutual funds and reinvested it all with Warren Buffett.

Durbin said like millions of others he was worried about his retirement.  Boehner says his stock broker acted alone without even talking to him.  Both lawmakers say they didn’t benefit from any special tips.

But over time members of Congress do much better than the rest of us when playing the stock market.

*   *   *

The value of information that flows from the inner workings of Washington isn’t lost on Wall Street professionals.

Michael Bagley is a former congressional staffer who now runs the OSINT Group.  Bagley sells access and research. His clients are hedge funds, and he makes it his business to mine Congress and the rest of Washington for tips.

MICHAEL Bagley: The power center of finance has moved from Wall Street to Washington.

His firm is just one recent entry into Washington’s newest growth industry.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s called political intelligence.

Craig Holman is at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog.  Holman believes lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to sell tips to hedge funds and members of Congress shouldn’t trade on non-public information.  But right now it’s legal.

HOLMAN: It’s absolutely incredible, but the Securities and Exchange Act does not apply to members of Congress, congressional staff or even lobbyists.

That law bans corporate insiders, from executives to their bankers and lawyers, from trading on inside information.  But it doesn’t apply to political intelligence.  That makes this business lucrative.  Bagley says firms can charge hedge funds $25,000 a month just to follow a hot issue.

BAGLEY: So information is a commodity in Washington.

Inside information on dozens of issues, from bank capitol requirements to new student loan rules, can move markets.  Consumer advocate Craig Holman is backing a bill called the STOCK Act.  Introduced in the House, it would force political-intelligence firms to disclose their clients and it would ban lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists from profiting on non-public knowledge.

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

Take a look at the list below from opensecrets.org concerning the wealthiest members of Congress.  In light of the fact that these knaves are able to trade on “inside information” you now have the answer to the following question from the opensecrets website:

Congressional members’ personal wealth keeps expanding year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases.  The same cannot be said for most Americans.  Are your representatives getting rich in Congress and, if so, how?

Here is the Top Ten List of the Richest Members of Congress from opensecrets.org:

NAME               MINIMUM NET WORTH    AVERAGE   MAXIMUM NET WORTH

Darrell Issa (R-Calif) $156,050,022      $303,575,011    $451,100,000

Jane Harman (D-Calif)  $151,480,522    $293,454,761   $435,429,001

John Kerry (D-Mass)    $182,755,534     $238,812,296   $294,869,059

Mark Warner (D-Va)     $65,692,210       $174,385,102   $283,077,995

Jared Polis (D-Colo)     $36,694,140        $160,909,068   $285,123,996

Herb Kohl (D-Wis)        $89,358,027           $160,302,011   $231,245,995

Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla)$-69,434,661    $148,373,160  $366,180,982

Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $73,685,086  $137,611,043  $201,537,000

Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)  $61,446,018      $98,832,010   $136,218,002

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) $46,055,250    $77,082,134   $108,109,018

Jay Rockefeller’s position on the list is easy to understand, given the fact that he is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller.  How the first eight people on the list were able to become more wealthy than Jay Rockefeller should be matter of interest to the voting public.  In the case of  #10 — California Senator Dianne Feinstein  — we have an interesting situation.  As chair of the Senate Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, she helped her husband, Iraq war profiteer Richard C. Blum, benefit from decisions she made as chair of that subcommittee.  In an article for bohemian.com, Peter Byrne discussed how Senator Feinstein was routinely informed about specific federal projects coming before her in which one of her husband’s businesses had a stake.  As Byrne’s article explained, the inside information Feinstein received was intended to help the senator avoid conflicts of interest, although it had the effect of exacerbating such conflicts.

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest .   .   .


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Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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Democrats Share The Blame

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January 21 brought us Episode 199 of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  At the end of the program, Bill went through his popular “New Rules” segment.  On this occasion, he wound it up with a rant about how the Republicans were exclusively at fault for the financial crisis.  Aside from the fact that this claim was historically inaccurate, it was not at all fair to David Stockman (a guest on that night’s show) who had to sit through Maher’s diatribe without an opportunity to point out the errors.  (On the other hand, I was fine with watching Stephen Moore twist in the wind as Maher went through that tirade.)

That incident underscored the obvious need for Bill Maher to invite William Black as a guest on the show in order to clarify this issue.  Prior to that episode, Black had written an essay, which appeared on The Big Picture website.  Although the theme of that piece was to debunk the “mantra of the Republican Party” that “regulation is a job killer”, Black emphasized that Democrats had a role in “deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization (the three ‘des’)” which created the “criminogenic environment” precipitating the financial crisis:

The Great Recession was triggered by the collapse of the real estate bubble epidemic of mortgage fraud by lenders that hyper-inflated that bubble.  That epidemic could not have happened without the appointment of anti-regulators to key leadership positions.  The epidemic of mortgage fraud was centered on loans that the lending industry (behind closed doors) referred to as “liar’s” loans — so any regulatory leader who was not an anti-regulatory ideologue would (as we did in the early 1990s during the first wave of liar’s loans in California) have ordered banks not to make these pervasively fraudulent loans.

*   *   *

From roughly 1999 to the present, three administrations have displayed hostility to vigorous regulation and have appointed regulatory leaders largely on the basis of their opposition to vigorous regulation.  When these administrations occasionally blundered and appointed, or inherited, regulatory leaders that believed in regulating, the administration attacked the regulators.  In the financial regulatory sphere, recent examples include Arthur Levitt and William Donaldson (SEC), Brooksley Born (CFTC), and Sheila Bair (FDIC).

Similarly, the bankers used Congress to extort the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) into trashing the accounting rules so that the banks no longer had to recognize their losses.  The twin purposes of that bit of successful thuggery were to evade the mandate of the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) law and to allow banks to pretend that they were solvent and profitable so that they could continue to pay enormous bonuses to their senior officials based on the fictional “income” and “net worth” produced by the scam accounting.  (Not recognizing one’s losses increases dollar-for-dollar reported, but fictional, net worth and gross income.)

When members of Congress (mostly Democrats) sought to intimidate us into not taking enforcement actions against the fraudulent S&Ls we blew the whistle.

President Obama’s January 18 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal prompted a retort from Bill Black.  The President announced that he had signed an executive order requiring “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive”.  Obama’s focus on “regulations that stifle job creation” seemed to exemplify what Black had just discussed one day earlier.  Accordingly, Bill Black wrote an essay for The Huffington Post on January 19, which began this way:

I get President Obama’s “regulatory review” plan, I really do.  His game plan is a straight steal from President Clinton’s strategy after the Republican’s 1994 congressional triumph. Clinton’s strategy was to steal the Republican Party’s play book.  I know that Clinton’s strategy was considered brilliant politics (particularly by the Clintonites), but the Republican financial playbook produces recurrent, intensifying fraud epidemics and financial crises.  Rubin and Summers were Clinton’s offensive coordinators.  They planned and implemented the Republican game plan on finance.  Rubin and Summers were good choices for this role because they were, and remain, reflexively anti-regulatory.  They led the deregulation and attack on supervision that began to create the criminogenic environment that produced the financial crisis.

Bill Clinton’s role in facilitating the financial crisis would have surely become an issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee.  Instead, the Democrats got behind a “Trojan horse” candidate, disguised in the trappings of  “Change” who, once elected, re-installed the very people who implemented the crucial deregulatory changes which caused the financial crisis.  Bill Black provided this explanation:

The zeal, crude threats, and arrogance they displayed in leading the attacks on SEC Chair Levitt and CFTC Chair Born’s efforts to adopt regulations that would have reduced the risks of fraud and financial crises were exceptional.  Just one problem — they were wrong and Levitt and Born were right.  Rubin and Summers weren’t slightly wrong; they put us on the path to the Great Recession.  Obama knows that Clinton’s brilliant political strategy, stealing the Republican play book, was a disaster for the nation, but he has picked politics over substance.

*   *   *

Obama’s proposal and the accompanying OMB releases do not mention the word or the concept of fraud.  Despite an “epidemic” of fraud led by the bank CEOs (which caused the greatest crisis of his life), Obama cannot bring itself to use the “f” word. The administration wants the banks’ senior officers to fund its reelection campaign.  I’ve never raised political contributions, but I’m certain that pointing out that a large number of senior bank officers were frauds would make fundraising from them awkward.

Black targeted Obama’s lame gesture toward acknowledgement of some need for regulation, encapsulated in the statement that “(w)here necessary, we won’t shy away from addressing obvious gaps …”:

Huh?  The vital task is to find the non-obvious gaps.  Why, two years into his presidency, has the administration failed to address “obvious gaps”?  The administration does not need Republican approval to fill obvious gaps in regulation.  Even when Obama finds “obvious gaps” in regulatory protection he does not promise to act.  He will act only “where necessary.”  We know that Summers, Rubin, and Geithner rarely believe that financial regulation is “necessary.”  Even if Obama decides it is “necessary” to act he only promises to “address” “obvious gaps” — not “end” or “fill” them.

At the conclusion of his Huffington Post essay, Black provided his own list of  “obvious gaps” described as the “Dirty Dozen”  —  “. . .  obvious gaps in financial regulation which have persisted and grown during this, Obama’s first two years in office.”

Bill Black is just one of many commentators to annotate the complicity of Democrats in causing the financial crisis.  Beyond that, Black has illustrated how President Obama has preserved – and possibly enhanced — the “criminogenic” milieu which could bring about another financial crisis.

The first step toward implementing “bipartisan solutions” to our nation’s ills should involve acknowledging the extent to which the fault for those problems is bipartisan.


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Keep This On The Front Burner

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June 26, 2008

For the past few weeks, the Senate Commerce Committee has been hearing testimony about the impact of the so-called “Enron loophole” in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, 7 U.S.C. §2(h)(3) and (g), which existed throughout Bill Clinton’s tenure in the Oval Office.  This “Enron loophole” is what has made it possible for speculators to drive the price of gasoline beyond $4 per gallon. Consider the Senate Commerce Committee testimony of Michael Greenberger, former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Director of Trading and Markets.  Mr. Greenberger testified that if the “Enron loophole” were closed, we would see “overnight” a 25-percent drop in the price of crude oil and as much as a 50-percent drop in the price of gasoline.  The Senate Commerce Committee hearing featured testimony by hedge fund managers and other market experts, concerning how the skyrocketing price of gasoline, diesel and heating oil are “breaking the back” of the American economy.  Some of these experts (knowing that their testimony would be falling on the “deaf ears” of bought-off lawmakers and friends of the oil industry) were nearly at the point of tears in describing how the rest of American industry is getting killed for the benefit of the oil industry.  Let’s revisit Mr. Greenberger’s point once again:  if the “Enron loophole” were closed, we would see “overnight” a 25-percent drop in the price of crude oil and as much as a 50-percent drop in the price of gasoline.  “Overnight” may be an exaggeration, although I’m sure he means a lot quicker than waiting for unbuilt and unplanned oil wells to start having an effect on the price of a barrel of crude.  (This turnaround time is considered by most experts to be a 10-year period.)

Our old friend, the Former John McCain, whom we once knew, voted with the Democrats to close the “Enron loophole” in 2002 and 2003.  His comments in the February, 2002 issue of The New Yorker told us much about how we got to where we are now, six years after he gave that interview:

Enron made a sound investment in Washington.  It did them a lot of good.  Where they really do well is around the edges, the insertion of an amendment into an appropriate bill.

McCain is no longer so strident about the sleazy origins of this “Enron loophole”.  This is probably because the loophole owes its existence to Phil Graham and his wife, former CFTC Chair, Wendy of Enron.  Phil is now McCain’s “economic advisor”, so don’t hold your breath waiting for McCain to repeat what he said to The New Yorker in 2002.  He has yet to speak out against this loophole as his new self: McCain 2008.  Nevertheless, a very loud, “hard” right-wing voice, that of Bill O’Reilly, has spoken up on this issue.  A visit to the website: http://closeloophole.org/ recites this quote from O’Reilly on his Factor show:

I want those SOBs [speculators] taken down…let’s work together to save the American consumer at the pump.

My favorite issues are those where “liberals” and “conservatives” can work together to solve the crucial problems faced by society.  It appears as though we have one right here.  If we address it, we may solve it “overnight” according to one expert.  If we do solve it, we will be helping more than the individual consumer.  We will probably save the entire roster of Russell 2000 “small-cap” companies from swirling down the toilet.  Most experts believe these companies are the hardest-hit by the uncontrolled cost of petroleum products.

For his part, Barack Obama has spoken on the record numerous times about his opposition to the “Enron loophole”.  This should come as no surprise since his fellow Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, is a key advocate for closing this loophole.  Obama supporter, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, has a bit of “street cred” on this subject, having served as the former chairman of the investment firm, Goldman Sachs.  Corzine is on the record for blaming this unregulated speculation for the outrageous pricing of petroleum products.

The American public has a notoriously short attention span.  It seems unbelievable that something this important, that erases “discretionary spending” and limits what food can be placed on one’s table, could be overshadowed by the latest celebrity scandal.  Americans must stay focused on this fundamental problem.  A visit to http://closeloophole.org/ will give you the opportunity to send e-mails to your Senators, expressing your opinion on whether our government should perform one of its most important missions:  to save us all from sleazebags.